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Mountain News: Vail’s Epic Pass a hit

VAIL, Colo. - If there's been a clear winner among ski areas this winter, it's been Vail. Business is down - yes, but not as much as at many other ski towns, judging from early returns.

VAIL, Colo. - If there's been a clear winner among ski areas this winter, it's been Vail. Business is down - yes, but not as much as at many other ski towns, judging from early returns. Much of the reason appears to be the Epic Pass, which was introduced last March by Vail Resorts, the parent company for Vail and four other ski areas.

Purchased in the pre-season, the pass cost only $579, offering unlimited skiing at the company's five ski areas. As such, it is a significant discount compared to traditional ski passes.

How much the company has lost in terms of more traditional ski passes is unknown. The new ski pass has certainly been a hit in terms of volume. Officials reported the sale of 59,100 passes through October.

The pass appears to have added proportionally more skiers at Vail Mountain as compared to Breckenridge, Keystone, and Beaver Creek.

"The brilliance of the Epic Pass play, whether because of luck or foresight, is that it's changed the way people behave," said Adam Sutner the director of sales and marketing for Vail Mountain. "We have disproportionately benefited from the Epic Pass.

The Vail Daily offers evidence that success of the Epic Pass has also benefited merchants in Vail. For December, the town had a drop in sales tax collections of 6 per cent, but other ski towns did worse: Steamboat Springs at 9 per cent, Breckenridge at 10 per cent, Winter Park at 14 per cent, and Aspen at 19 per cent.

"It's Wayne Gretzky economics," said Phil Long, owner of Vail's The Red Lion restaurant. "Don't go where the puck is. Go where the puck is going."

Meanwhile, Vail - the town, as opposed to the ski company - is not sitting on its haunches. A marketing committee associated with the town government is hoping to appropriate marketing funds to target potential customers from Colorado's urban Front Range corridor. As well, the committee has hired James Chung, a resort expert from reach Advisors, for $125,000 to help partner Vail with nationally known brands.

The first potential partnership pairs Johns Hopkins University with the Vail Valley Medical Center, If implemented, medical classes would be held in Vail that would draw medical professional and their families, helping build year-round business.

Soup kitchens busy
AVON, Colo. - Despite the continued construction in Vail and only a slight downturn in ski tourism at Vail and Beaver Creek, food pantries and weekly soup-type public dinners are drawing bigger crowds in the Eagle Valley.

"We now have middle-class people coming in to get food from the food pantry, or asking for help with utilities," the Salvation Army's Tsu Wolin-Brown tells the Eagle Valley Enterprise.

In Eagle, the United Methodist Church has begun offering free weekly dinners of soup and pasta. "We have a bunch of laid-off construction workers coming in for the food bank here, and a lot of homeless people," said Joyce Engstrom, an administrative assisted at the United Method Church Eagle Valley.

Some businesses still doing well
ASPEN, Colo. - While both real estate and tourism are down substantially in Aspen, some businesses are actually holding their own, even gaining a little.

The Aspen Times reports that several pizzerias, as purveyors of lower-priced meals, are doing well. So is an architect, David Johnston, who began to diversity out of the Aspen area last year. And, of course, a second-hand store is actually seeing an increase in business.

But even some high-end hotels are doing OK. The Hyatt Grand Aspen Resort had 86 per cent occupancy during January, and in mid-February were still at 70 per cent - a figure that is expected to hold through ski season. No employees at the hotel have been laid off.

CB suffers 20% drop
CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. - Business at the Crested Butte Mountain Resort was down 20 per cent as of mid-February, a decline that chief operating officer Ken Stone calls "pretty devastating. It could be worse, he tells the Crested Butte newspaper, as some resorts are down 20 to 30 per cent. Still, it's bad enough that some of the full-time employees are working six days a week. Nor will the economy improve soon. It's going to be this way for the next few years," he predicts.

Big building year ahead
PARK CITY, Utah - Real estate sales may be down the toilet, but by the numbers, building may be up in Park City. City building officials report that they expect a big building year, if below the $148 million in work authorized in 2008, the third biggest year on record. Propping up the numbers may be work on a new phase of a hotel called Montage, a hotel in the adjacent Deer Valley resort.

On to the lecture circuit
KETCHUM, Idaho - Auden Schendler is now on the lecture circuit, promoting his new book, called Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution.

Schendler's personal front lines were at Aspen, arguably America's swankiest ski resort. He's the executive director of community and environmental responsibility at the Aspen Skiing Co., where he has worked for about 10 years.

Aspen's top executives hired Schendler and have supported him. Still, it hasn't been easy to institute energy efficiency measures, he explains in the book. The real world has nuances and forces that the simple textbook models don't take into consideration.

He explains that he began his efforts at Aspen's most luxurious hotel, the Little Nell, a place where you can buy a $10,000 bottle of wine. "Saving energy at the Nell is like shooting fish in a barrel," he says in the book.

But it was a while before he got any - and that's the point of his book.

He has spoken in Basalt, Colo., and in Ketchum, Idaho, in recent weeks.

Look for him at a library, bookstore or coffee shop near you soon. He's forceful and entertaining.

Substance slows beetles
ALBANY, Calif. - Aerial application of a substance used in herbal teas could limit spread of the mountain pine beetles that have been devastating lodge pole pine stands across the West.

Scientists for more than a decade have known that the substance, called verbenone, is released by the beetles themselves to inhibit overcrowding of host trees. What is new is evidence that the verbenone, when spread across broad areas by helicopters or other vehicles, might better disperse beetles and simulate natural beetle release.

The evidence comes from an experiment, in which helicopters were used to test flakes of the substance on plots located near Mount Shasta in northern California and in the Bitterroot Range along the Idaho-Montana border. The sites had similar tree densities and rates of infections. Half the plots were "treated" with the substance and the other half were left untreated.

On those plots that were treated, the level of attack was reduced to about one-third of what it was on the untreated plots.

The team of nine scientists, led by Nancy Gillette of the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Research Station, concluded that the technique could provide a way to treat large-scale infestations, such as are found in central British Columbia, where 22 million acres of lodgepole pine have been affected, as well as in Colorado, where 95 per cent of lodgepole pine are expected to die.

In Colorado, the bark beetles are expected to soon infest ponderosa pine, which are more commonly found in the foothills along the eastern slope of the Front Range.

The scientists say the substance could be an alternative to insecticides, which can have adverse environmental effects. Verbenone has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use as a flavor ingredient.

The researchers say that thinning of overgrown forests is still recommended to reduce susceptibility to bark beetles. However the verbenone-coated flakes can provide some protection for the dense, old-growth stands required by wildlife.

In Colorado, Jan Burke of the White River National forest said the broader focus should be on reforestation and encouraging species and age diversity in the "future forest."

"We have to be pro-active and not just chase beetles," she told the Summit Daily News. "There's a lot we can do, and it may not be hanging on to mature lodgepole pines. The best thing may be to cut out the dead and replant."

Colder, wetter winters help
BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. - Is the spread of mountain bark beetles in Colorado slowing? That fresh theory was examined by the Summit Daily News, which notes that anecdotal observations in Summit County indicate that the beetles aren't spreading as rapidly to higher elevations in and near Breckenridge.

The beetles are still expected to march through the forest, killing large numbers of trees. But at the higher elevations of around 10,000 feet, where lodgepole pine start mixing with spruce and fir trees, there may be more survivals.

"You're right in the zone where a bit of change in the temperature can make big differences," said Jeff Witcosky, an entomologist for the Forest Service in Colorado.

The theory is that from 1997 to 2002 the weather was both warmer and drier in northern Colorado, the centre of the epidemic. Trees that were already susceptible to attack, due to their age, were further weakened.

In the wake of this warm spell, beetles were observed to have two life cycles per year, compared to the one that is normal, even in epidemics.

But the weather for several years has again turned wetter and colder during winter, although not summer, more in line with weather of previous decades.

It's still too early to know whether this cooler weather will significantly deter the spread of beetles. If it does, however, traditional techniques of thinning in combination with insecticide may prove more effective to protect some high-value areas. During the recent epidemic, some efforts were completely without success.

Stop if you've heard this one
JACKSON, Wyo. - Few things have been steadier during the last 40 years than the Sunday night appearances of the house band at The Stagecoach Bar. The band - to keep things simple, it is called The Stagecoach Band - hasn't missed a Sunday night show, save for Christmas or New Year's, since February 1969, says the Jackson Hole News & Guide.

Never mind that one ski magazine called it "the worst country-western band in the Western Hemisphere." How many house bands have had Bob Dylan sit in with it? For that matter, how many bands have played that steady for 40 years?

The clientele has changed some. There are fewer cowboys now at The Stagecoach, which is located in the hamlet of Wilson, near the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. And the band added amplification. But the Sunday night shows, they stay the same.

Campaigns to ban plastic picking up
REVELSTOKE, B.C. - For several years people have been marveling that old cooking oil used to cook French fries can also be used to fuel diesel engines. If only there was such a simple solution for plastic bags.

Canadian activist Tracey Saxby was in Revelstoke recently to discourage the use of plastic bags. The energy used to create 8.7 bags is the same as needed to drive the average car for a kilometre, she said. (Or, if you prefer, 14 bags will get you a mile).

Meanwhile, 25 mountain towns in Colorado and adjoining states have embarked in a friendly contest to see which can most effectively reduce use of plastic bags.

The contest will run six months, from March through August. Grocery stories in each town will tally the number of reusable bags used. The winning community will get a $5,000 grant from the Alpine Bank to install a solar panel system at a local public school.

In addition to 17 towns in Colorado, the competition also includes three in the Sun Valley area of Idaho plus Jackson, Wyo., and Park City, Utah. The competition is being promoted by the Colorado Association of Ski Towns.

The competition grew out of a contest last summer between Telluride and Aspen. Telluride won that tilt handily, using more than twice as many reusable bags per capita.

Dog-walkers ordered to stay away
BANFF, Alberta - A mountain lion nick-named Doug - because it was observed scrambling up a Douglas fir tree - has been making a killing of a living around Banff. His most recent kill of an elk, reports the Rocky Mountain Outlook, was near an area frequented by people and their dogs. While the cougar, as mountain lions are also known - has never shown aggression toward people, wildlife authorities took no chances. "Obviously, from the standpoint of human safety, we don't want people and their dogs there," said Steve Michel, a human-wildlife conflict specialist for Banff National Park.

Project pulls back into eddy
WOLF CREEK PASS, Colo. - Plans for a major real estate play at Wolf Creek Pass are in an eddy, at least for the time being. The developer, Red McCombs, failed to submit a revised application for a road access across the Rio Grande National Forest. As such, the Forest Service review has officially ended - at least for now.

"It's still too early to say for sure whether the project is completely derailed or simply delayed," said Ryan Demmy Bidwell, director of Colorado Wild, a group that is legally opposing the project.

Bidwell told the Durango Telegraph that it appears Red McCombs is retooling the project, called the Village at Wolf Creek.

No real estate currently exists at Wolf Creek, despite the presence of a ski area of the same name. McCombs had previously received approval to build 2,172 time-share housing units on the private land, which was obtained as the result of a land exchange in the early 1980s.

This isn't the first time real estate planning stalled at the pass. The same developer was also gearing up to develop the land in the mid-1980s when a real estate bust occurred. He didn't get busy again on the project for more than a decade.

Buses aboard with biodiesel
KETCHUM, Idaho - The 27 school buses in the Blaine County School District have been shifting to a mixture of diesel that now includes a 5 per cent component derived from vegetable oil, or B5. Plans are now underway to bump up the proportion to a 20 per cent mix, or B20. One-hundred per cent biodiesel is not advised in mountainous areas, because the biodiesel can freeze in colder temperatures.

Kill quill is remedy for porcupines
MOUNTAIN VILLAGE, Colo. - Mountain Village, the town located slope-side to the Telluride ski area, has been having a problem with porcupines. They have been chewing on trees around homes, with increasing damage to landscaping in recent years.

Why this is, nobody knows for sure, reports The Telluride Watch. One theory is that mountain lions and other animals that prey upon porcupines have been driven away. Also, like most of the hotels and homes, many of the trees used for landscaping are young, which porcupines like.

Nor does simply removing the porcupines seem to work very well. Nobody wants them, and most die when transplanted during winter.

Instead, they will be killed. "It's very sad, but they have to be euthanized," trapper Tina Mayer told the town council.